pic 1When we hear the word “advertising,” we think paid content meant to grab our attention and convince us to buy this product or that service; we think commercials, billboards and annoying pop-up ads online.

But advertising doesn’t have to be intrusive. In fact, the right tools and messaging can actually make for an inclusive advertising experience—one that people will pay attention to because they’re interested in participating, not because it’s forced in front of them.

User-generated content (UGC) refers to media contributed by the general public. This can be a blog post, YouTube video, restaurant review, Facebook status, tweet, Instagram photo or Vine video clip, to name a few examples. It’s no secret that Millennials love UGC. According to Ipsos MediaCT research shared by Mashable, Millennials spend 18 hours per day with media, 30 percent of which is media created by their peers (UGC).

Not only does UGC allow for an inclusive brand experience, it also warrants an active one. Traditional advertisements make some sort of passive appearance, with the company’s hope that the audience will absorb whatever information is presented to them and develop a want or need for what’s being sold. With UGC, consumers are encouraged to interact with the content, allowing them to take part in and ultimately further a company’s brand community.

The Millennial consumer market
As a Millennial and recent college grad myself, I can tell you that most of us check social media (a prime spot for UGC) above all other media types.  According to a Pew Research study, 75 percent of Millennials (ages 18-29) have a profile on a social networking site. In fact, the majority of us participate in social networking at least once per day. Why are we checking social networks over everything else? We trust UGC, the word of our peers, over that of advertisers. A friend’s social media post carries much more weight for us than a flashy advertisement does for the same product.

UGC as marketing leverage
As a marketing tool, UGC allows for interactive relationships—consumer to consumer, business to consumer, consumer to business—that offer a sense of community and belonging, where opinions and stories can be shared by ordinary, relatable people. Like. Comment. Reply. Retweet. Share. UGC has the power to captivate and engage. In the age of information overload, it’s easy for us to become numb to ordinary, static content. If you want to tap the Millennial market, you have to get our attention by warranting our interaction. Create something we want to share with others.

As Kevin Bobowski wrote, “User-generated content is the next marketing and advertising frontier for brands. Its wide acceptance is due to the fact that it is both powerful and affordable. But most of all, it is relatable in a way that polished, directed, scripted advertising is not.”

Success stories: Companies engaging consumer communities via UGC

1. GoPro –Put one of these versatile little cameras in the right hands (or strap it to the right helmet, for that matter), and whatever unique moment the camera has captured may be uploaded to YouTube, where it grows an audience and can generate hundreds of thousands of views. Footage resulting from this product is easily translated into a marketing masterpiece. In this way, regular customers have become small-scale advertisers for GoPro simply by sharing their camera footage online. Now that’s authentic advertising. GoPro also has a YouTube channel of its own where it compiles and shares people’s experiences captured via GoPro cameras.

2. 1888 Hotel – A boutique hotel in the vicinity of Sydney, Australia, 1888 Hotel launched its social media presence on Instagram in 2013, when the old building was reintroduced as a hotel. Self-proclaimed the world’s first “Instagram Hotel,” 1888 features Instagram-worthy photo opportunities such as the Insta-Walk (a 45-minute picture-perfect stroll around the hotel and Sydney’s Darling Harbour) and Selfie Space (a “selfie” photo opp in the lobby, where guests’ photos appear on-screen if they include the hashtag #1888Hotel). A free night’s stay can be won by guests who take a great Instagram shot and include the hotel hashtag, or any Instagram user with more than 10,000 followers—a tactical incentive for guests to Instagram their hotel experience.

pic 23. Airbnb – With accommodations in more than 190 countries, Airbnb serves as an online community for people to list and book unique places from local hosts around the globe. With the message, “Belong Anywhere,” Airbnb encourages users to share their experiences and photos with hashtags #Airbnb and #BelongAnywhere. Of course, Airbnb also has a robust presence on Instagram itself. The company recently went through a rebranding process and introduced their new symbol, the Bélo, deemed “the universal symbol of belonging.” To further their mission of a shared brand identity, Airbnb invited everyone to create their own, unique version of the Bélo illustrating their Airbnb experience. The Bélo Report shares info on the masses of responses gathered thus far.

Engage through interaction
So what’s the take away?  If you want the attention of Millennials, ask for our input. Encourage self-expression in a way that supports your company’s brand. Give people a platform they’ll want to build off of. By building a brand community, you can further consumer relationships and brand loyalty. After engaging your consumers through UGC, showcase feedback and results—they serve as an authentic advertisement, and will attract others to join your brand community.